Reflections on Ministering to College-Age Orthodox Christians in a Postmodern World


by Fr. John Abdalah

The importance of giving pastoral care to college-age people is certainly no secret to those who are doing it – and even more so in our time, when we have moved into what is called the “postmodern era.” Developmentally, the college years are a crucial and eventful time of moral, spiritual, physical and intellectual growth. I would suggest that the changes that occur in the four college years are so dramatic that, frequently, the college freshman is hardly recognizable as the same person when he or she graduates. College is also, in my opinion, the first time that individuals have the developmental skills and life experience really to understand the Christian message and dedicate themselves to Christ. Regardless of the effectiveness of our catechetical programs during childhood, those who are even younger are simply not prepared to understand abstract concepts like Trinity or Incarnation, and the implied relationships. Providing college-age Orthodox Christians an opportunity to discover, strengthen and (or) commit to Orthodox Christianity should certainly be a priority of the Church. Many Orthodox don’t return to the church after these years away at school. While the various statistics may be conflicting and controversial, all will agree that the loss to the Church of many young people, and the loss to the students of the Church, are of significant concern for the Church.

I will offer some reflections on post-modernism and how college-age students typically are thinking. I will also discuss some of the common pastoral needs of this group and some ways an Orthodox chaplain might respond. In particular, I will address homesickness, loneliness, depression, drinking, sexual activity outside of marriage, obsessive-compulsive acting out, and judging by peers of one another. I will also address the task of helping the post-modern college student to develop more mature images of God, as we know Him in Orthodoxy, and to grasp the character of His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

What do we mean by postmodernity? The faculty of Georgetown University offers the following definition on its Web site.1

The Modern and the Postmodern: Contrasting Tendencies

“The features in the table below are only often discussed tendencies, not absolutes. In fact, the tendency to see things in seemingly obvious, binary, contrasting categories is usually associated with modernism. The tendency to dissolve binary categories and expose their arbitrary cultural codependency is associated with postmodernism. For heuristic purposes only.”

MODERNISM/MODERNITY POSTMODERN/POSTMODERNITY
Master Narratives and meta-narratives of history, culture and national identity as accepted before WWII (American-European myths of progress). Myths of cultural and ethnic origin accepted as received. Suspicion and rejection of Master Narratives for history and culture; local narratives, ironic deconstruction of master narratives: counter-myths of origin.
Faith in “Grand Theory” (totalizing explanations in history, science and culture) to represent all knowledge and explain everything. Rejection of totalizing theories; pursuit of localizing and contingent theories.
Faith in, and myths of, social and cultural unity, hierarchies of social class and ethnic/national values, seemingly clear bases for unity. Social and cultural pluralism, disunity, unclear bases for social/national/ethnic unity.
Master narrative of progress through science and technology. Skepticism of idea of progress, anti-technology reactions, neo-Luddism; new age religions.
Sense of unified, centered self; ”individualism,” unified identity. Sense of fragmentation and decentered self; multiple, conflicting identities.
Idea of “the family” as central unit of social order: model of the middle-class, nuclear family. Heterosexual norms. Alternative family units, alternatives to middle-class marriage model, multiple identities for couplings and childraising. Polysexuality, exposure of repressed homosexual and homosocial realities in cultures.
Hierarchy, order, centralized control. Subverted order, loss of centralized control, fragmentation.
Faith and personal investment in big politics (Nation-State, party). Trust and investment in micropolitics, identity politics, local politics, institutional power struggles.
Root/Depth tropes. Faith in “Depth” (meaning, value, content, the signified) over “Surface” (appearances, the superficial, the signifier). Rhizome/surface tropes. Attention to play of surfaces, images, signifiers without concern for “Depth”. Relational and horizontal differences, differentiations.
Crisis in representation and status of the image after photography and mass media. Culture adapting to simulation, visual media becoming undifferentiated equivalent forms, simulation and real-time media substituting for the real.
Faith in the “real” beyond media, language, symbols, and representations; authenticity of “originals.” Hyper-reality, image saturation, simulacra seem more powerful than the “real”; images and texts with no prior “original”. “As seen on TV” and “as seen on MTV” are more powerful than unmediated experience.
Dichotomy of high and low culture (official vs. popular culture). Imposed consensus that high or official culture is normative and authoritative, the ground of value and discrimination. Disruption of the dominance of high culture by popular culture. Mixing of popular and high cultures, new valuation of pop culture, hybrid cultural forms cancel “high”/”low” categories.
Mass culture, mass consumption, mass marketing Demassified culture; niche products and marketing, smaller group identities.
Art as unique object and finished work authenticated by artist and validated by agreed upon standards. Art as process, performance, production, intertextuality. Art as recycling of culture authenticated by audience and validated in subcultures sharing identity with the artist.
Knowledge mastery, attempts to embrace a totality. Quest for interdisciplinary harmony. The encyclopedia. Navigation through information overload, information management; fragmented, partial knowledge; just-in-time knowledge. The Web.
Broadcast media, centralized one-to-many communications. Paradigms: broadcast networks and TV. Digital, interactive, client-server, distributed, user-motivated, individualized, many-to-many media. Paradigms: Napster and the Web.
Centering/centeredness, centralized knowledge. Dispersal, dissemination, networked, distributed knowledge
Determinacy, dependence, hierarchy. Indeterminacy, contingency, polycentric power sources.
Seriousness of intention and purpose, middle-class earnestness. Play, irony, challenge to official seriousness, subversion of earnestness.
Sense of clear generic boundaries and wholeness (art, music, and literature). Hybridity, promiscuous genres, recombinant culture, intertextuality, pastiche.
Design and architecture of New York. Design and architecture of LA and Las Vegas
Clear dichotomy between organic and inorganic, human and machine. Cyborgian mixing of organic and inorganic, human and machine and electronic.
Phallic ordering of sexual difference, unified sexualities, exclusion/ bracketing of pornography. Androgyny, queer sexual identities, polymorphous sexuality, mass marketing of pornography, porn style mixing with mainstream images
The book as sufficient bearer of the word. The library as complete and total system for printed knowledge. Hypermedia as transcendence of the physical limits of print media.The Web as infinitely expandable, centerless, interconnected information system.

Claims that God has revealed Himself to a people seem arrogant and foolish to an audience that has no sense of absolute reality or truth in a religious context. Truth, they say, doesn’t belong to anyone. Each person has his/her own truth. Those with a post-modern mind-set are suspicious of history. They are interested in their own experience of God. Here the Orthodox can provide, through worship and sacraments, a real and concrete experience of the Living God who reveals Himself as Trinity. To facilitate this, we must challenge students to develop and strengthen their own real relationship with God through prayer. We also need to help them understand better who God is, and what He reveals about Himself.

Claims that God has revealed Himself to a people seem arrogant and foolish to an audience that has no sense of absolute reality or truth in a religious context. Truth, they say, doesn’t belong to anyone. Each person has his/her own truth. Those with a post-modern mind-set are suspicious of history. They are interested in their own experience of God. Here the Orthodox can provide, through worship and sacraments, a real and concrete experience of the Living God who reveals Himself as Trinity. To facilitate this, we must challenge students to develop and strengthen their own real relationship with God through prayer. We also need to help them understand better who God is, and what He reveals about Himself.

I find the parables of the Kingdom to be the best source for challenging incorrect or immature images of God. Man is created in the image of God, not God in the image of man, yet our personal images of God from our youth are of the authority figures of our lives. God is like a parent who is punishing, a state trooper who sets a speed trap, a teacher who humiliates students with incorrect answers, a coach who judges us inadequate…. Yet Christ is the perfect Icon of the Father, and He says that the Father is like a woman who seeks the lost coin, a father who celebrates the return of the prodigal, a shepherd who leaves the flock for the lost sheep, and the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

God has taken on flesh so that we can build a relationship with Him. He has shown Himself to be a Person, and relations with Him are personal. Just as we develop relationships with each other, constantly revealing ourselves and correcting misconceptions that others have and reveal to us, the Orthodox Christian develops a relationship with God the Father, through Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit. Thus, as we speak to God regularly in prayer and regularly listen – by being quiet, reading and hearing the Scriptures and Church Fathers – and as we encounter God speaking to us through clergy and other Orthodox Christians, and through the sacrament of confession, we come to know Him. When we gather together in His Name, Christ promises to be present and make Himself known to us. When we spend time with each other, developing our relationship, we no longer ask if the other exists. Rather, we understand that because we know someone, the question of existence is surpassed. This is the kind of knowing and being that we have in relationship with each other, and this is equally true of our relationships with God. So a student may ask, “How do we know God exists?” but this, for me, is the wrong question. We know God as we know each other, and no one has yet to ask me if I exist. The better our relationship, the deeper is the knowing. Knowing God is being in relationship with Him and is so much greater than knowing about Him.

When we commune with God, we share the life He took on flesh to share. I like to discuss with young people the liturgical prayers at the consecration, in both the liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great. I remind them that God has called us out of the world to be His people, and that through baptism He has grafted us to Himself. Christianity cannot be reduced to people controlling each other, being nice, Christian-like or civil, good citizens, or the like. The Word became flesh to share His life with us. He entered into our life, our sufferings and our deaths. Only through Christ can we share the life of the Trinity. Deification is the message, not Judeo-Christian morality or world-views.

College-age people are often away from home for an extended period of time, for the first time in their lives. They have left their parents’ homes and their familiar routines. Many have spent so much time relating to the world through computers that their social skills may be lacking, adding to their feelings of isolation. Some depression is an expected response to any change, and surely a change in living arrangements qualifies here. (Consider, too, the change in social groups, parish routines, and jobs, each of which provided some kind of support.) Campus ministries can be an opportunity for them to find others with similar backgrounds and faith experiences. They may be a source of support and social networking. For those who have trouble reaching out, organized activities can be a life-preserver in a tumultuous sea of change. I find it helpful to tell them that depression is a normal response to loss, and all change, positive or negative, is processed with some normal and healthy depression. Many young people are relieved by naming and understanding their feelings, and realizing how normal those feelings are. As a mentor, the college chaplain can help young people do this. The skilled chaplain listens and reflects back the feelings that he or she is hearing. By relating to the feelings without long autobiographical disclosures, which tend to steal away the young person’s story and make the discussion about the chaplain, the chaplain can be very helpful. Depression can be good when it is part of the process, but it is not good when one gets stuck in it.

After an adult has heard the story, he or she could ask, How long do you think that the adjustment to these changes, or the mourning of these losses, should continue? This gives the young person permission to make sense of his or her grief, and to begin to take control of the process. Young people often describe feeling alone even in a crowd. This “aloneness” is a normal part of experiencing grief. Sometimes a friendly suggestion to keep in touch with parents and siblings is a relief to a young person, who is afraid that calling home would make the student look weak or a burden to family. Letting the student see, too, that this change in routine can be traumatic to the family left behind, can sometimes be helpful. Our hope here is that the young people may “stretch” and be less egocentric, considering the perspectives of others.

It is no secret that many college-age students are binge-drinking. The pressure from peers to participate is great. Fear of being labeled or shunned is scary to college-age students who are already feeling isolated and lonely. Organized activities for the weekends offer viable alternatives for our young people. Such activities also give post-modern youth opportunities to serve and make a difference in the world, as they say they want to do; they seek opportunities to live out their faith by serving those in need. Orthodox Chaplains can also offer a forum where young people can discuss alcohol, faith and loneliness. The Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) may be the only place where an Orthodox teen may feel free to share his or her own standards and beliefs. The chaplain can also offer God’s understanding of the struggle and affirm God’s own unconditional love as well as forgiveness.

Post-modernists usually accept society’s attitude that anything goes, sexually. If premarital, extra-marital or same-sex options are wrong, a post-modernist may blame God for making life the way He did and then challenge or even condemn God for judging. To traditional thinkers, this logic seems absurd; nevertheless, this is what many young people are thinking. I find it helpful to begin our discussions affirming what Scriptures and Orthodox life defines as the purpose of sex and marriage. God is three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit; one God in relationship. If we are indeed in God’s image and likeness, then we relate to each other. God makes a man and a woman husband and wife through His sacramental gift of marriage. Sex expresses this mystery and gift between married persons. Anything short of this sacramental union is a distortion of the gift, and all distortion is sin. I also find it helpful to discuss that laws or rules in the Church, like those at home, are meant to teach and protect. We have rules at home against playing around a lit stove. Such rules are gifts to protect us from being burnt. The rules about sex are gifts to protect us. For me, the challenge is to communicate effectively the truth that sex is holy and belongs to the sacramental gift.

I share with post-modern college-age students the discovery of social psychologists that people justify their actions by changing their perspectives. The application here is that once a couple begins to be sexual, they convince themselves that they love each other. Few of us would admit to ourselves that we have sex just to satisfy ourselves and that we don’t care about the other. Once we start being sexual, we can’t know if we are having sex because we love each other, or think that we love each other because we are having sex. Sex confuses relationships and prevents a relationship from developing in a more “natural” way.

Post-modernists are often idealists and perfectionists, and many of them feel guilty and sinful simply for having temptations and for being sexual creatures. It is helpful to affirm for them that God understands and loves them. It is also helpful to reaffirm that all of us who share flesh, share temptation. Christ became man to share even these temptations and to save us. The chaplain again is a mentor who helps young people through this confusing transition in life. While it is sometimes good to be intense and perfectionist, giving us advantages over less-careful students or workers, in this arena it is destructive. It leads to feelings of isolation and self-condemnation. I challenge those who fall into this to consider what is fair: Is it fair to judge yourself more harshly than you judge or would judge your friends? Is it reasonable to judge yourself instead of accepting God’s mercy and love? People need to understand that such self-condemnation is pride, and that we are taking God’s place in judging. In situations like this, a call to repent (change one’s mind) is a welcomed one.

Many of the post-modern young people I have worked with report obsessive-compulsive thoughts and actions. These students tend to be very bright and very intense people. When asked, most will admit that they can remember making up games to help them be less bored as children. It is my idea that many have kept these boredom-busting habits too long and now they get in the way of studying. I challenge such students to understand that these habits come from themselves, and they have the right to change them. I also call their attention to the self-delusion of magical thinking, in which compulsive actions or obsessive ideas are supposed actually to change what happens. Most can understand that magical thinking belongs to early stages of cognitive development and is simply immature. Knowing this, most are able to change their habits. I might ask why God is subject to, and controlled by, your rules or compulsions? This is usually met with a laugh. The mentor offers encouragement.

Post-modern man and woman seek a relationship with God. Such relationships are fostered the same way human-to-human relationships are, that is, by spending time together and listening. We need to help a generation that has never been without the noise of computers, televisions and iPods to sit quietly before the living God and commune with Him. We need to show them how they relate to God through worship and sacraments. We need to help them understand that sharing in God’s work is sharing life with God and deepening their relationships. We need to encourage them to understand that feelings are often confusing and to help them understand what God is doing, even when it doesn’t feel the way they might have imagined it would. We need to be willing to share ourselves and to talk about our prayer life and our relationship with God.

To minister to post-modern, college-age students, leaders need to be authentic. They need to be honest and open. Post-moderns will not accept hypocrisy or dry academic formulas when it comes to religion. They want to know how you relate to God and why you think they should. It’s not enough to perform ancient ritual. We need to teach how we relate to God through these rituals, why we use them and what they mean to us. Because we have two thousand years of relating to God as a Church, as a people, as God’s own, we have an advantage over those who are more cerebral in their approach, but we need to make it real, and that comes from really showing what it means to be with Christ.

 

Fr. John Abdalah is Dean of St. George Cathedral in Pittsburgh and has been working with college students for almost thirty years. These reflections were prepared for an OCF Chaplain’s Conference at the Antiochian Village.

 


Footnote:
1. Martin Irvine, Founding Director and Assoc. Professor, Communication, Technology and Culture Program, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Georgetown University, (http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/pomo.html).